This essay was originally commissioned to appear in Maine Art New, a selection of essays and artist profiles edited by Edgar Allen Beem and Andres Verzosa and to have been published by the University of Maine Press. In February 2019, after a long and difficult history, the press canceled the publication, freeing us to publish the essay here.
In August of 2010, Roxanne Quimby’s Quimby Family Foundation awarded a grant to the University of Maine Press for Edgar Beem and Andy Verzosa to co-edit a new book on contemporary art in Maine, that was meant to update Beem’s 1990 Maine Art Now and to be written by a dozen contributing writers.
The author wishes to thank the Quimby Family Foundation for underwriting this essay.
Artists who appeared elsewhere in Maine Art New are followed by an *.
Some of the thousands of people who crowd downtown Portland for First Friday Art Walks, when as many as ninety galleries, studios, and museums are open, might be tempted to think that Portland and Maine have always been as richly blessed with contemporary art as they are today. However, just as First Friday, established in 2000, is a creature of the twenty-first century, the contemporary art scene in Maine is something of a late twentieth century phenomenon. Indeed, until the mid-60s, very few Maine art galleries and museums paid serious attention to contemporary art, with the exception of summer art colonies catering to painters and sculptors. Those that did inevitably focused on works of conservative realism, American Impressionism, or European masters.
An overview of Maine arts in the immediate Post-War years reveals more of a study in still life than thriving art scenes. From today’s vantage the cultural landscape appears largely arid with a few bright spots. Most artists made their own way, with few galleries, and no state or federal funding sources. But there was a remarkable can-do attitude from a generation of young artists, who had pulled together during the war and found Maine a first-rate place to work, study and stay. How their presence set the tone and substance of debate, changed museums, and attracted commercial galleries and new art institutions is the crux of this inquiry. Before there was a viable Maine art scene, the artists simply created opportunities for themselves.
In 1945, a two-tiered system in place since the 1880s, consisted, on the one hand, of a strong sprinkling of major national artists such as John Marin and William and Marguerite Zorach who lived inexpensively in studios along the coast but were financially supported by New York gallery ties. The second tier consisted of local artists who struggled on in semi-obscurity, usually working other jobs to support their art. The lucky few taught art but tended to cling to realistic watercolors or oils, focused largely on the Down East landscape or sea.
This is not to say that there were not a few intriguing artists within this genteel number, but sometimes there also lurked a deep-seated anti-modern conviction, shared by most of Maine’s collecting institutions. Although Edward Hopper painted some of his best work in Portland and vicinity, most of the artists were shunned by museums, along with anything deemed abstract or “modern.”
John Calvin Stevens, a very competent painter and a visionary architect of national significance in his prime, spoke in his later years for the forces of conservatism, if not reaction. On October 17, 1936, he told reporter Alice Frost Lord of the Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine:
Modern art! I have no interest in it but to go by it… no matter how effective the color harmonies, if a building appears to be falling down in a picture I can’t make it seem right. These young artists are in too much haste. They want to paint pictures before they have learned how to draw. I attribute it to the automobile.
Today’s reader may chuckle at the last statement but Stevens was one of the founders of the Portland Society of Art, and served his second term as president from 1922 to1940. The PSA ran the Portland School of Fine and Applied Art (now Maine College of Art) and the L.D.M. Sweat Museum (now Portland Museum of Art). The former taught drawing and modeling up through the 1960s, while the latter preserved the best Maine landscape and marine paintings and neo-classical sculpture of the nineteenth century.
Though Stevens died in 1940, his vision was carried on by like-minded associates, most notably Alexander Bower, director of both school and museum from 1931 to 1950. Though a student of Thomas P. Anshutz, and very popular with students (including portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Thomas Nadeau, watercolor and printmakers Dorothy Hay Jensen and Alice Harmon Shaw Kirkpatrick, and city artist Alfred Waterman), Bower’s landscape paintings were often impressive but never really groundbreaking. Like Stevens, he had reached a level of painterly competence that pleased him and he was content.
Not so Mildred G. Burrage, who left her job at South Portland’s Todd-Bath shipyards in 1944 bursting with new energy. Though fifty-four years old, the Portland-born painter already had an enviable career. Having learned drawing from “classical casts” while growing up in Portland, she went on to study in France between 1909 and 1914. She exhibited widely there and in America and produced murals for Bryn Mawr College. Beginning as an impressionist and portrait painter, she experimented with various grounds and materials, traveling widely between the wars. In the forties, Burrage saw the first of Jackson Pollock’s revolutionary abstractions, writing:
They were a revelation to me. I had broken with portrait painting and impressionism, but I had not known intimately the work of modern artists…I saw immediately that Pollock had found another way. He was painting himself. These were not “decorative,” planned, cooked-up affairs.
The continental plates had shifted in ways Messer’s Stevens and Bower could not or would not understand. In 1947 Mildred and her sister, Madeline, a skilled craftsperson, moved from the Kennebunkport art scene to the mid-coast town of Wiscasset. There, as John Cole, of the Maine Times, would observe, Burrage “kept cultural activities at a brisk boil” until her death in 1983. She was celebrated for her many contributions to historic preservation and in founding the Lincoln County Cultural and Historical Society.
In 1958, Burrage was instrumental in opening the Maine Art Gallery at the 1807 Wiscasset Academy Building. That year, works by Maine contemporaries were selected by artists including William Zorach and Laurence Sisson. Burrage continued to paint enthusiastically and experimentally. When offered a retrospective at the Colby College Museum of Art in 1978, she chose to show her latest paintings of mica abstractions. Though her works are in museum collections from Colby College to Rockefeller University, it was only in the spring of 2012 that the first serious evaluation of Burrage as a visual artist, rather than a force in the overall Maine art scene, was undertaken by the Portland Museum of Art.
Just up the coast, Rockland became the first Maine community to truly embrace contemporary twentieth century art. In 1935, Miss Lucy Farnsworth left money for a new institution in Rockland. During the 1940s, trustee Robert Bellows started buying up the best nineteenth and twentieth century works of American art with an emphasis on Maine representational paintings. The William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum (now Farnsworth Art Museum) opened in 1948 under Director James M. Brown III. In 1944, the museum had purchased four watercolors and a drawing by virtually unknown Andrew Wyeth. The public loved Wyeth. The critics were not kind, but the artist’s reputation grew along with prices for his egg tempera paintings. For a large segment of America, Maine art was Wyeth, Cushing, and Christina Olson. A major exhibition of Wyeth’s work was held at the Farnsworth in 1951, in cooperation with New Hampshire’s Currier Gallery. Under director Wendell S. Hadlock, an anthropologist, who served from 1951 to 1976, the focus remained dedicated to conservative realism.
In 1975, he produced a book-length catalogue of the collections. The next director, Marius B. Peladeau, would let in some fresh air by exhibiting and collecting works of more visionary, contemporaries including Rockland native Louise Nevelson, Robert Indiana, and Neil Welliver.
Modernism was on the march.
In 1946, painter Willard Cummings along with artists Sidney Simon, Charles Cutler, and Henry Varnum Poor founded the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture on the Cummings family farm in East Madison. This intense nine-week summer residency attracted artists including Louise Nevelson, Alex Katz*, Joseph Albers, Ben Shahn, Bernard Langlais, Lois Dodd, and Robert Indiana*. Some students, including noted painter David Driskell*(1953), came from Appalachia and ended up living and working in Maine. The Skowhegan School would go on to become the premier art finishing school in the country and to colonize Maine with scores of contemporary artists.
Mildred Cummings, wife of Willard Cummings, was instrumental in establishing Maine Coast Artists in Rockport, which later became the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (and moved in 2016 to Rockland). Maine Coast Artists got off to a shaky start in 1952 when a group of artists in the midcoast area, chief among them Denny Winters, Jason Schoener, William Kienbusch, Frank Hamabe, and William Thon, got together to mount a summer show in an old Rockport schoolhouse. Mildred Burrage was among the artists exhibited that first year.
The Maine Coast Artists shows jumped around from schoolhouse to post office, Union Hall, a garage, and the Rockport Opera House until 1967 when Millie Cummings took over direction and the old fire barn that housed the Center for Maine Contemporary Art was purchased as a permanent home. Maine Coast Artists established itself as an important debut venue for new art and emerging artists in Maine.
Something new also started up at the University of Maine in Orono after the war. A tidal wave of servicemen, propelled by the G.I. Bill, surged through the unprepared campus and other Maine colleges. Orono prepared to meet the demand by implementing such things as an art department.
In 1946, the university hired Vincent A. Hartgen, a veteran with an MFA. The durable, far-seeing Hartgen not only taught art but also built a remarkable permanent study collection that, by the 1960s, included works by Homer, Wyeth, and Marin. This amazing cross section of regional artists, living and dead, was enhanced by catalogues of the university’s collections published in 1966 and 1977.
An excellent painter of abstracted watercolors, generally based on natural Maine themes, Hartgen exhibited at Bates College’s Treat Gallery and Bowdoin College of Art Museum. He also reached out by bringing works by Beverly Hallam, William Manning, Dahlov Ipcar, and William Zorach to the University of Maine at Orono.
Zorach, along with his wife, Marguerite and daughter Dahlov Ipcar*, played active roles in bringing the far-flung art scenes together in the post-war era. Already William and Marguerite helped shape early modernism and were among the dozen or so Maine-related artists represented in the paradigm-changing Armory Show of 1913. Art historian John I.H. Baur wrote that Maine’s William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, Robert Laurent, and a handful of others had played a major role “in rescuing America from the neo-classical inanities and illustrative modeling which dominated it at the turn of the Century.”
Another major national figure sought out by Hartgen was John Marin, who continued to produce his abstract watercolor masterpieces at Cape Split in South Addison until his death in 1953.
The University of Maine at Orono also gave exhibitions to Waldo Peirce, considered in the 1920s and 1930s to be a rival of Hartley. Peirce, a Bangor native, was a Paul Bunyanesque figure variously called the “American Renoir” and the “Ernest Hemingway of American painters.”
In the 1940s, however, Peirce’s reputation as a painter all but vanished. When, in 1950, the Farnsworth gave him a retrospective, Peirce wrote forlornly; “I am gratified to have a show like this in my state, where I most like to live and paint. I hope somebody likes some of the pictures. You can’t fool all the people all of the time.”
Another Hemingway crony, Henry Strater, a rugged individualist and representational painter, left New York for Maine and incorporated the Museum of Art of Ogunquit in 1951. Maine’s first museum of modern art was his vision, but he was helped by such heavy hitters as Edith Halpert of New York’s Downtown Gallery, sculptor Robert Laurent, and painters including Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The Ogunquit museum, which opened in 1953, would always have an impressive corporation made up of artists and scholars including DeWitt Hardy, Rudy Dirks, Philip C. Beam of Bowdoin, and James M. Carpenter of Colby.
Now Ogunquit was taking the lead artistically and joining hands with previously more staid places. In 1958, a group of individuals led by actor Jack Smart came together. These folks believed that the resort town “needed more than the OAA, Vayana’s Art Center (Ogunquit’s first commercial art gallery, 1922-1984), Strater’s Museum and small individual artists’ galleries to stimulate public interest in contemporary art and the changing art world.” Thus they founded the Barn Gallery.
The Hamilton Easter Field Collection, formed in honor of painter-critic Field (1873–1922) and initially shown at Henry Strater’s museum, was transferred to the Barn Gallery at its opening. It included such important moderns at Hartley, Karfiol, Kuhn, Robert and John Laurent.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, Ogunquit-based artists of strength would include Beverly Hallam, George Kunkel, John Laurent, and DeWitt and Pat Hardy, but works by Bernard Langlais, Stephen Etnier, and Clark Fitz-Gerald would also find a place in town. Mary-Leigh Smart, widow of actor Jack Smart, would guide the Barn Gallery and eventually arrange for the Hamilton Easter Field Collection to be given to the Portland Museum of Art.
By founding its art museum in 1959, Colby College in Waterville suddenly put itself in the middle of the growing Maine art scene. In 1963 William B. Miller, Director of the Archives of American Art, brought out the list “Artists Active in Maine in the Twentieth Century.” Although only twelve-page long, it proved a watershed document. It was quickly followed by the landmark 1963 exhibition and book, Maine and Its Role in American Art, 1740–1963. Edited by Gertrude A. Mellon and Elizabeth F. Wilder, it was the first study to put the state in a national context and was divided into eras and written by such authorities as Nina Fletcher Little, James Thomas Flexner, Lloyd Goodrich, John I.H. Baur, William B. Miller, and James M. Carpenter, Chairman of the Art Department at Colby College. For the first time ever, Maine’s art history was surveyed in its entirety.
In 1964, Colby, under curator Christopher Huntington, himself a noted Maine landscape painter, published Maine: 100 Artists of the 20th Century, including early moderns and contemporaries such as Wyeth, Thon, Sisson, Reuben Tam, John Muench, Fairfield Porter, and John Laurent. Overnight, Colby won a place for itself in the study of local and regional art, and the modern was not stinted. In another Colby catalogue, Maine and Its Artists, 1710–l963 (Colby, 1963), noted that abstract expressionism had dominated American art for the last twenty years but few artists in Maine belonged to abstract schools.
For example, the paintings of William Kienbusch and Reuben Tam, are at first, seemingly abstract. But soon an image of nature begins to be felt and in the end may very likely dominate. In fact one of the very special challenges felt by these artists and others, like John Heliker, Jason Schoener and John Muench, is to express the essence of something seen in nature with a complex of shapes and colors that has a powerful identity when seen abstractly.
Beginning in 1966, director Hugh J. Gourley III would guide the Colby museum through a period of unprecedented growth, establishing it as a leader in the Maine art scene.
In 1955, Bates College in Lewiston opened the Treat Gallery, a space where traveling exhibitions, including Maine contemporaries, were showcased. From the beginning, the Treat was built around the Mardsen Hartley memorial collection, a gift of Norma G. Berger and the heirs of the artist. In 1964, William J. Mitchell established the Bates Art Department and ran the Gallery. He was followed in 1969 by curator Synnove Haughom, who graced the office until 1978. In 1970, Mitchell authored Ninety-Nine Drawings by Marsden Hartley.
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Maine’s oldest art museum, introduced prestigious exhibitions under directors Marvin S. Sadik, Richard V. West, R. Peter Mooz, and Katharine J. Watson. Between 1976 and 1980 curator Margaret R. Burke edited a Handbook of the Collections (1982). Contemporary artists on the faculty included Thomas Cornell and Joseph Nicoletti*. Tom Cornell joined the faculty in 1962 and had a variety of exhibitions in and out of state, most notably his 1964 drawings and prints show at Bowdoin, a fitting place for formal, didactic, and elegant works.
Portland was the last community to awake to modern notions, though it had rivaled Boston as an art scene in the 1830s, produced John Neal, the man twentieth-century art historian John McCoubrey called “America’s first art critic,” and was a viable scene through the 1880s.
The L.D.M. Sweat Museum changed its name to the Portland Museum of Art sometime between 1953 and 1954. A local painter, Bradford Brown, served as director from 1951 to 1960.
Museum preparator Michael Ricci, who became one of Maine’s finest illustrators, recalled a trustee coming in to consult the director and dropping actress Bette Davis with him in the empty gallery. Davis, then living in Cape Elizabeth, asked Ricci, “Well, Michael, what kind of a show is this?”
Pinned like a bug to the wall, Ricci replied, “an exhibition of Maine artists, Miss Davis.”
“Really,” countered the actress, “I didn’t know there were any artists in Maine!”
The Portland Museum of Art was slow to pay attention to living local artists, as late as the 1980s, a director of the museum noting that museum time is not an artist’s lifetime. But in 1962 Lewiston-born William Manning*, a teacher at the Portland School of Art and the closest thing Maine had to an Abstract Expressionist painter at the time, was given an exhibition. There would subsequently be more local contemporary exhibits including several more focused on Manning.
Across town, Temple Beth El began a yearly art festival complete with professional catalogues in 1962. Interest in the new art was at full boil in Maine. As Rabbi Harry Z. Sky wrote, “It is through the medium of an Art Exhibit that we bring Truth and the personal spiritual feelings of sensitive souls as expressed by them in visual form.”
Former Portland museum director Bradford P. Brown was employed as co-coordinator. Among the organizers of the landmark Temple Beth El shows over the next eleven years were Mrs. Harold Nelson, Mrs. David Silverman, Mrs. Harold Osher, Rosalyn Bernstein, Leonard M. Nelson, and Annette Elowitch.
In the early 1960s, the Temple Beth El art shows were the best chance Mainers had to see modern art. Works by Picasso, Zorach, Wyeth, and Leonard Baskin, borrowed from Maine and national museums, mixed with works by city natives. In the following decades, the shows, which generally included more than one hundred works, grew stronger. The last, in 1972, was entitled Women in Art and had a catalogue introduction by painter Dahlov Ipcar. Many of those involved including Peggy Osher, Nancy Davidson, Rob Elowitch, and Pat Davidson Reef, would go on to play vital roles in the establishment of the Maine art scene.
It was not until 1966 that Portland got its first serious art critic and its first significant contemporary art gallery.
Lewiston attorney Philip Isaacson, regarded as the dean of Maine art critics, began reviewing art for the Maine Sunday Telegram that year. Prior to that time, art openings had been reported as social events if they were covered at all.
Painter Thomas Crotty opened Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport in 1966. Frost Gully forged links with New York galleries, becoming year-round in 1971, and sought to represent “Maine’s very best artists” including Alfred Chadbourn, Stephen Etnier, William Kienbusch, John Laurent, Laurence Sisson, and William Thon.
While the Portland Museum of Art was moving toward the modern age, its affiliated Portland School of Art was in turmoil. Excellent teachers including Bill Manning, George deLyra, and Polly K. Brown were debating the nature of figurative and non-objective art in an incredibly tense atmosphere. In 1969, an impasse between the old and the new having been reached, Manning, Polly Brown, and sculptor George A. Curtis left to form the Concept School of Visual Studies, an alternative to the Portland School of Art.
Concept School flourished in rooms on Congress Street from 1969 to 1973. The operative idea was that “[i]n developing his own direction, the student moves away from limits imposed from without to those imposed from within.” Important artists such as Kathy Bradford*, Maury Colton, M.C. Laubach, and Alice Spencer would pass through Concept.
Though it really deserves book-length treatment of its own, Portland’s Old Port art scene flourished colorfully in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, a new generation of young artists, many local and many from away, rediscovered the beauty and affordability of the waterfront district, which had been virtually abandoned since World War II. With few public funds and a lot of sweat equity, artists helped turn the Old Port into a functioning art center with record shops, candle shops, studios, and galleries.
The first to try a commercial gallery were Donald and Valerie Fisher of Westbrook. The Fisher Gallery on Exchange Street was met with compliments but slack sales. Citizens were swept up by the ideas of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Sexual Revolution (Portland had a “Lib Museum” in the 1970s). Two army veterans with art training, W.L. Frost and Milford C. Laubach, arrived in 1971 and joined two other artists to rent the Seaman’s Club (half taken up by a hardware store) for sixty dollars a month. After two months, they sold one print and when the other partners had a fist fight outside over the money, Frost said to Laubach, “Well, ‘Bach, I guess we’re out of the commercial gallery business.” Portland was still finding itself.
The unnamed gallery in the Seaman’s Club, was typical of the era when artists such as Edy Bishop, Denis Boudreau, C.C. Church, Howard Clifford, Maury Colton, Joseph Cousins, Christopher Glass, Lenny Hatch, Jon Legere, F.R. Vance, and Michael Willis were not only sharing their own visions but finding cheap loft and studio space in the abandoned wharves and warehouses of Portland. By creating a scene they inadvertently did what local government and Urban Renewal could not—spark an economic and real estate revival that brought Portland back to life.
The velocity of cultural change accelerated in the 1970s.
In 1970, the Portland Museum of Art produced the seminal exhibition, A Century of Portland Artists, 1820–1920.
In 1972, William Collins took over the reins of the Portland School of Art, ushering in a more progressive era for the school.
Good contemporary art galleries opened in rapid succession. Frost Gully Gallery came to downtown Portland in 1973. Barridoff Galleries opened in 1974, the Webber Gallery in 1976, and Posters Plus (now Greenhut Galleries) in 1979.
In 1975, artists Carlo Pittore, Kathy Bradford, Natasha Mayers*, Abby Shahn*, Maury Colton, Tom Cornell, and others formed the all-volunteer Union of Maine Visual Artists, an arts advocacy that to this day works to uphold the dignity of artists and lobby for their rights.
In 1977, the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art on the campus of Westbrook College (now University of New England) was built by John and Nancy Lawler Payson. The Paysons placed twenty-seven mostly French Impressionist paintings in the little jewel box of a building with van Gogh’s magnificent Irises as its centerpiece.
That same year, plans were formulated under the vision of director John Holverson for the magnificent new Charles Shipman Payson Wing of the Portland Museum of Art. Designed by Henry N. Cobb of the I.M. Pei firm, the new wing became Maine’s most contemporary work of architecture when it opened in 1983. Maine had arrived in the modern art world.
The roots of the modern may not run deep in Maine’s thin cultural soil, but they do run wide. Isolated artists created their own little scenes from Ogunquit to Monhegan, Portland to Deer Isle, Norway to Presque Isle, Skowhegan to Eastport.
In 2010, the Tides Institute & Museum of Art in Eastport undertook the pioneering exhibition, The 70’s: Art & Place at Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine. This impressive show and catalogue focused on the individual artists who created a remarkable art scene and one uniquely a part of downeast Maine in the 1970s. The artists featured in the show, who left New York in the summer for the freedom, fresh air and cheap real estate of downeast Maine, included Denis Oppenheim, Joe Stranad, Alan Shields, Leslie Bowman, Judith Colemann, George Trakas, Vito Acconci, Red Grooms, Richard Van Buren*, Brendt Berger, and Mani Feniger. The exhibition also celebrated back-to-the-landers such as Barbara Toothpick and Alan Horseradish who brought counter-cultural energies and ideas of the time to the far corners of Maine.
Though isolated, these artists created their own worlds while reaching out to other Maine art scenes to connect, communicate, exhibit, and exchange ideas. And that is the way culture grows everywhere—creative individuals acting individually and in concert.